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A Non-Headship Marriage Part II: Four Theologies of Christian Marriage

My previous piece was a beginning of open conversation about my “non-headship” or “egalitarian” marriage. Australian Pentecostal Christians don’t often discuss theologies of marriage, they just live them. But there are now serious reasons to speak out. Notice I said THEOLOGIES plural. There are currently at least four Christian (Patriarchal, Complementarianism, Egalitarian, Deconstructionist) views on heterosexual marriage. I outline them here.

This post is long, so feel free to scroll. Truth is, I don’t find it easy to write. It opens me to critique from others who believe differently. Some men are infuriated when I present current research. Heaven forbid I would use my PhD education. Admittedly, I’ve watched other female colleagues in churches and seminaries silenced by all kinds of power techniques.

Perhaps you’re a guy and have no idea what I’m talking about. Dr Jeremiah Gibbes wrote an excellent post on Christian male privilege you can read here if you need to.

There have always been some men who exercise religious authority over women regardless of age, education, or gifting. It’s no secret academia draws sycophants to play “global expert”. Scholarship was the domain of men, and rational argument. Dealing with sexism is just one small, annoying aspect of female scholarly life I address here reposted by The Big Smoke.

But such experiences have become open windows for me to see things better. There are some crucial conversations we must have in our porn-saturated, sex-obsessed world.

I regularly hear from evangelical female colleagues that the greatest threat to women’s voices is no longer men in university upper administration. Instead it is the push back from younger Christian men. This is affecting young Christian women very seriously.

The Junia Project recently published Dr Cheryl Bridges-John’s poignant “Letter to a Young Christian Feminist”. In it, Cheryl explains things from her vantage point as a globally respected Pentecostal theologian. I highly recommend it, here. She states,

Because we believed things would only get better for women, we were not as diligent as we should have been. I think Bill Hybels speaks for all of us when he said, “Somewhere in the middle 90’s I think I said, ‘I don’t have to carry that flag anymore. Because the whole church gets it, we are done with that. We’ve crossed over.’ But in the last ten years, I am embarrassed to say, it’s gone the other way.”

It isn’t just Hybels who is shocked at the turn of events. All of us, women and men alike, never imagined how much “the other way” would be so cleverly nuanced. My generation could not imagine there would be organizations such as The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. We failed to anticipate The Gospel Coalition, John Piper, and the genteel Tim Keller... Now, a newer generation has taken patriarchy and wrapped it in more palatable language…

Now, I actually like Keller, and much of Piper. But she refers to the very real progression of sexist ideas infiltrating theologies of Christian marriage. You can catch up here, via Dr Shane Clifton.

We need to distinguish between good contributions of these leaders, and hidden ideologies. In the interests of making this discussion clearer, I propose we refer to four theologies of marriage. I will briefly outline their differences.

1. The “Patriarchal” View

You may not believe it, but a whole section of the Christian church is militantly returning to Patriarchal social structures that limits the role a woman plays in her marriage, and also within the church, outlined brilliantly by Cheryl in her post.

The Patriarch was the authorised male leader of a household, responsible for well-being of all those under his care. All social life revolved around him – financially, politically, and sexually. This role of Patriarch was conferred upon male heirs only. One concern for Christians in the early church (including Paul!) was patriarchy as a controlling force over the rights of women. This did not represent Jesus, the Lord of the church, as shown in his encounter with the woman at the well. Nor was patriarchy upheld in the Spirit-empowered church within Acts 2.

Christianity initially worked directly against the Patriarchs. The church distributed food to widows and orphans which allowed them to exist outside the household unit, and women played a large part in the early church, in defiance of patriarchal arrangements.

For Pentecostals who read the Bible literally, it probably seems natural that a husband would be the ‘head’ of his wife. But many Christians are unaware of ways this theology is now co-opted to reflect sexist views that degrade women.

In a random example, I’ll take Paul Ferguson’s entry in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Just a neutral dictionary published by, right? So, let’s look up the topic “headship”. In a long entry, among other things, it states “Woman reflects the glory of God in man so that both bear the image of God” citing Gen 1:26-27. Wait, but let’s read Genesis again:

Gen 1:26-27 – Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness“… So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them

Uh, no. Even if you read “mankind” literally rather than “humankind” (which is silly) there is still no suggestion in this passage that women “reflect the glory of God in man“. This passage is a proclamation that men and women are both created in God’s image.

There are serious problems with sexist, patriarchal readings of the Bible that appear in many parts of the Christian church today.

2. “Headship theology” and “Complementarianism”

Why are we talking about “headship”? … Well, the Hebrew Old Testament uses a word ‘rosh’ or ‘head’ in reference to a Patriarch of a household. The New Testament, however, is written in Greek, in which ‘head’ becomes ‘kephalē’ – the body part, but also sometimes translated as ‘source’.

In the New Testament a new order emerges which defies patriarchal norms. The tricky thing is that Headship theology actually breaks with a patriarchal view on many counts.

What we call Christian “Headship theology” is based essentially around three New Testament passages: 1 Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3.

What it moves towards is “Complementarianism”, the idea the sexes are equal but “complementary” (hence the name). This can definitely serve to liberate women, but in many cases it reflects socially appropriate roles that retain patriarchy’s sexism and power. Newer roles are often borrowed, strangely, from the Western nuclear family of the 1950s.

Ironically, Aboriginal Australian Christians often place here too, as Dreaming culture had distinct roles for men and women. And yet, the economic and political functioning of Aboriginal marriage is unlike this American advertising image. Kinship provides an intricate network of responsibility, with care-giving and support for elders and even outsiders. This is probably closer to the Biblical context; perhaps a voice you should amplify, dear complementarian friends! Anyways, I don’t want to get deep into specifics, but 1 Cor 11 is largely a discussion regarding the Middle Eastern tradition of covering one’s head. The Bible determines that while a woman should cover her head in this context, a man should not. This is reinforced by ideas on head coverings and submission in 1 Peter 3. At its heart, a Complementarian position simply states that the Bible never directly asks wives to “sacrifice” (Eph 5:25) or husbands to “submit” (Eph 5:22). This is the basis of differentiation of male and female roles in marriage. Here I want to make an important plea. There are many good Christians who hold to headship theologies of marriage who also practice deep equality. If you are reading this, can I encourage you?! This position needs to be made distinct from a “Patriarchal” one. If you’re arguing FOR the right to retain socially ascribed gender roles, then please do articulate contextualisation in a post-modern world. There are one billion women suffering domestic violence globally. So if I can be so blunt, for GOD’S SAKE, stop digging into Biblical translations and begin to make it clear what you mean for Christians today, because your position is being co-opted by Patriarchs. Ahem. Let’s keep going. 3. “Egalitarian” equals “Everyone Submits”. In contrast, an Egalitarian view also draws upon many other Scriptures to conclude that both partners in a marriage are fundamentally equal, and that that equality does not necessarily need to be inscribed within particular gender roles. Egalitarianism is based upon mutual submission as stated in Ephesians 5:21 “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (KJV). Thus, equal submission and sacrifice is required by both. But individuals are free to work out arrangements; such as who takes care of children, who does the finances, who cleans the house, and who works outside of the home. Rather than turning to society to decide these roles, it allows freedom to draw upon each partner’s strengths. I’ll give a personal example. In my Christian denomination, a male pastor is often responsible for vision-casting, to which his wife submits. This is often taken as a ‘norm’. Clearly my female body didn’t get this memo, because I rate highly as “Futuristic” in Gallup’s Strength Finders 2.0. In contrast, my husband is “Context”, meaning he’s likely to emphasise how we did things last week. He’s also “Activation”, meaning he gets the job done. While Tim decided he was Egalitarian early on, I had a slower journey to that position. I attempted for years to submit to Tim’s vision for our marriage. But I would find myself seeding him the ideas, to which I would then attempt to submit. The theological position of Egalitarianism says there’s nothing inherently un-biblical or wrong about me creating a picture of our future, and him making it happen. In other words, we don’t have to apply our senior pastors’ examples for our marriage to still be “Christian”. What is Christian about our marriage is demonstrated love for one another, intentional support and our faith commitment. Dr Mimi Haddad makes a great point about Egalitarians when she says, “Just as all squares are also rectangles, egalitarians are also feminists in that they seek justice and dignity for women. But, not every feminist is a Christian or an egalitarian. Egalitarians and Christian feminists both share a common denominator—that justice and equality for females is a biblical ideal that can and should be part of the moral teachings and practices of Christians. As we can see above, fundamentally the word “feminism” simply means promoting equality between men and women. This is the definition we should assume when someone identifies as “feminist” or says they promote “feminist” marriage. But this is becoming more complex as Gender Studies Departments in universities around the world seek to redefine gender completely. Sometimes, Complementarians characterize Egalitarians as radical progressives, which is just not true. They tend to believe this theological position facilitates a “slippery slope” destruction of gender. The position Complementarians reject is something else entirely, which I will now outline. 4. A Deconstructionist or “Genderless” Marriage (?) There are various types of feminists. Radical first wavers saw marriage as a symbol of repression that needed to be dismantled. This is not as true for the third wave, who mix marriage and feminism with more ease. Those who are not egalitarian may believe sexuality and gender need serious deconstruction. Some feminists radically oppose the idea that gender is located in physical distinctions, particularly those related to child bearing. Most don’t. The truth is, we don’t even have a name for theologies about marriage that carry these ideas. I’m not sure they have hit the broader church yet. I’ve called them “Deconstructionist”. Contrary to the opinion of many Christians, you don’t have to agree with something to know about it. But many conservative denominations have placed an embargo upon their theologians dialoguing with gender theory (and the liberal side of the church). Without this, there’s a huge lack of resources helping evangelical Christians articulate what we believe about gender, or marriage. It’s easier to shut conversation down. But our millennials need more from the church than blank denial. I guess the best we can do for now is to differentiate theologies of marriage that respect gender difference inscribed within human bodies versus those that do not. As I’ve attempted to show, all of the theologies above use more than just the biblical text. And they are all attempting to apply Scripture to real life. Deconstructionist theologies include some “Feminist” or “Womanist” positions, mixed with voices of Christians who identify as “Queer” or LGBTI, to create a fourth, outlying position that argues gender is entirely irrelevant to Christian marriage. I’ll stop here, as both conservatives and progressives probably want to burn my house down. But it’s no secret I’m conservative on this and most other issues. Let’s be honest with one another, these are the theologies now debated in the public square due to same sex marriage. But the church is fifty years behind in its thinking. Unless Christian leaders want to promote genocide of all LGBTI people (ugghhh!!!), we need to find better ways to talk about this. In conclusion…There are points of agreement and disagreement between Christians and the wider feminist movement. Nuance in this debate is incredibly important, as often we argue against a perception of the other side, rather than the reality.

The fact is, no Egalitarian I know is arguing towards genderlessness. An Egalitarian position attempts to recognise the realities of womanhood. It is based in a biological understanding of a woman’s body, particularly the challenges of child bearing, and its impact economically, socially and sexually. It seeks equality between partners. Given immediate challenges to women from a Patriarchal view of marriage, there may be some Complementarians willing to consider the costs of reviewing their position to stand as partners alongside women in the church. Many more who believe in equality are quiet on their views. If you are thinking of speaking up, the time is now, my Christian brothers and sisters. The time is most definitely now. And I hope this has at least helped you to see the breadth of the THEOLOGIES of marriage within the Christian church. And what is at stake, and why we can’t all just get along. If we got better at talking about our diversity, I’m sure we’d be much happier. Tanya is a PhD student at Fuller Theological seminary. She published a number of well-known songs through Hillsong Music Australia, including ‘Jesus, What A Beautiful Name,’ which reached #6 on Australia’s CCLI worship charts. Her album 'Grace' is available on iTunes. You can read more from Tanya on her blog

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